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Newly cataloged from the H. Richard Tyler Collection: The afferent nervous system from a new aspect by Henry Head, W.H. R. Rivers, M.D. and James Sherren.

Portrait, Henry Head, Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine
Portrait, Henry Head, Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Henry head’s left arm showing the loss of cutaneous sensibility.
Henry head’s left arm showing the loss of cutaneous sensibility.
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Newly cataloged from the H. Richard Tyler Collection:

The afferent nervous system from a new aspect by Henry Head, W.H. R. Rivers, M.D. and James Sherren. 

Offprint from Brain 28 (Summer Number), 1905, Part CX

This article by Henry Head with Rivers and Sherren is a famous case of auto-experimentation.  Henry Head, physician to the London Hospital and a prominent British neurologist, is one of many scientists who have experimented on themselves.

Annoyed when patients with peripheral nerve injuries became weary after an hours testing of a restricted skin area, Head asked his colleague, the surgeon James Sherren, to section the radial nerve in his own left arm in 1903. Dr. Head abstained from smoking and alcohol (except for holidays) for two years prior to the experiment.  “Sherren severed the peripheral branches of the radial nerve and then reconnected the ends with silk sutures. “ Then from 1903-1907 (Lenfest, Vaduva-Nemes and Okun 2011), he made many observations on himself with River’s assistance.  Psychologist W.H. R. Rivers mapped the areas of sensory loss and eventual recovery of sensation (Whonamedit? A dictionary of medical eponyms: Sir Henry Head n.d.; Haymaker and Schiller 1970). Areas of sensory loss can be seen on Head’s left arm in Figure 1 and 2 of the paper (shown). This paper was only the preliminary report, but raised much controversy over the ethics of auto-experimentation and the meaning of the results (Head 1905).

“This operation produced loss of all forms of cutaneous sensibility over an extensive area on the radial half of the forearm and back of the hand. Stimulation with cotton-wool, the prick of a pin, the application of all forms of heat and cold, were unappreciated, and the two points of the compasses could not be discriminated, even when separated to the furthest extent possible.  But if this part was touched with the point of a pencil, the head of a pin or even with the ball of the finger, the stimulus was at once appreciated, and the point of application localized with remarkable accuracy. (Plate I., fig. 1. Head 1905, page 4)”

This paper opened up a new field in the study of the sensory functions of the skin.  Its findings contradicted prior neuro-anatomical theory (The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science & Medcine 1991; Haymaker and Schiller 1970).  He argued for the existence of two separate sensory systems, protopathic and epicritic (Lenfest, Vaduva-Nemes and Okun 2011). His theories dominated neurological thought until his death in 1940 (Morton 1983).  The lasting contribution of this study was the realization that the neurological portion of the sensory examination was anything but straightforward  (Lenfest, Vaduva-Nemes and Okun 2011).

 Bibliography

The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science & Medcine. San Francisco: Jeremy Norman & Co., 1991.

Haymaker, Webb, and Francis Schiller. Founders of Neurology. Second edtion. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1970.

Head, Henry, W. H. R. Rivers, and James Sherren. "The afferent nervous system from a new aspect." Brain 28, no. 2 (1905): 99-115.

Lenfest, SM, A Vaduva-Nemes, and MS. Okun. "Dr. Henry Head and lessons learned from his self-experiment on radial nerve transection." J. Neurosurg. 114, no. 2 (February 2011): 529-533.

Morton, Leslie t. A medical bibliography (Garrison and Morton: an annotated check-list of texts illustrating the history of medicine. . London: Gower, 1983.

Whonamedit? A dictionary of medical eponyms: Sir Henry Head. n.d. http://www.whonamedit.com/doctor.cfm/705.html (accessed April 18, 2014).

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